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Handling the Table Personality: The Rules Lawyer

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(and the lesser known counterpart the Rules Guru)

Guest Writer: Christopher Bishop

Art by Alanna Bishop © 2017

Ahh, the indomitable Rules Lawyer!  At some point in a Gamemaster’s career, you are bound to run into this crafty table personality.  Not to be confused with the Meta-Gamer, this personalities chief purpose is safety and control for themselves.  While many of them might view every game as a competition of them versus the Gamemaster, most simply want to know that in this world of adventure there are still tangible, enforced outcomes that the rules of the game provide them control over.  This is absolutely the player that will passive aggressively remind you of every petty detail and subtle nuance the game provides for routine task resolution.  Never fear, with any luck this opinion piece will provide you with some tools for working with the Rules Lawyer instead of against them.

The first thing to understand about the Rules Lawyer is they come in many flavors.  The one consistent aspect though is their almost encyclopedic knowledge of the rules.  Some of them (see The Rules Guru) can actually be quite helpful to your game, but most literally sit on pins and needles waiting for that time your adjudication does not meet the standards established on page 395 paragraph 13 o f the core rulebook.  Some Rules Lawyers simply manipulate the rules to gain perceived advantages similar in fashion to the Meta-Gamer except they have the rulebook to back them up.  Other versions just refuse to deviate from the rules for any reason, even if the rules themselves come into conflict with the story on the table. It is important to identify which type you have in order to make up a battle plan that will work for your table.


Step 1: The Conversation

The conversation with the Rules Lawyer can be a tough one.  It is definitely best reserved away from the table and other players.  There is a good chance it might even become heated.  That being said most Game Masters have a tool in their wheelhouse that most Rules Lawyers will never see coming.  The rules themselves.  It was back in the late 1980’s when it first dawned on me that my current Rules Lawyer was running over the top of me.  Often times my games would break down to one of my players insisting on quoting verbatim rules for each and every situation we encountered.  The minute I chose to side with the story over rules they were all over me like politicians on a bribe.  It is then that I chose to examine the rules more closely.  There had to be some font of wisdom from the mind of Gygax  that would clear all this up.  Lo and behold there it was!  Located on page 230 of the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide in nice bold print.

I have since used this snippet of wisdom for every d20 based game I have run.  After all, if one of the two creators of the whole dang roleplaying genre stated this, to me, this is like a Supreme Court Justice laying down the final verdict.  Sometimes, they balk with excuses such as “That was a different time, games have evolved” or “You’re not Gygax so it does not apply to you!”  Usually, this leads to me having to pull open which ever version or game system I am running and finding this exact same statement or sentiment clearly expressed.  Bottom line is, as the Gamemaster interpretation of the rules and how they are applied ultimately lies with you.  The Gamemaster is the one (or should be the one) putting painstaking hours of detail and preparation into providing the game for the players.  They are the ones exhaustively writing and changing things around so as to keep the game evolving. Often times, when the Rules Lawyer is confronted with the game creators stating to essentially use the rules as a device rather than an immutable law, it’s like garlic to a vampire, much hissing, will be involved.

The best thing you can do in this private conversation is to illustrate how your desire is to tell a cohesive story line that the players share in and help to shape.  If a rule in some fashion conflicts with the over all story telling, you will make them (the rules lawyer) aware of the fact you are overlooking or removing it and why.  This will not necessarily make them happy, but at least it may restore you to a neutral ground at the table.  In fact, encourage the player to send you notes about things that bother them.  Make sure they understand they still have a voice even though you are making ruling calls and if they can justify a story based reason why the rule should not be overlooked or changed that adds something you are more than willing to take that into consideration.

Step 2: Reward the behavior you want to see

Okay, so we have discussed many of the negative aspects of having a Rules Lawyer at the table.  But there can be many benefits too!  It is just a matter of shaping that Rules Lawyer into a Rules Guru.  Having someone who understands the rules in and out is actually a good thing.  It can cut down time trying to find some clarification on what is going on at the game table, as this person has a pretty good idea where to look.  It can also be a real boon for new players too.

The best thing in the world you can do is to team up the Rules Lawyer with a newer player at the table.  Sure, you might get a little grumbling at first, but the Rules Lawyer’s overwhelming inclination to spout off their knowledge will soon override their aversion to being paired with a “newbie”.  Not only that, but giving them a sort of mentor role will let them feel like their love of the game rules is being allowed to flow, and not being restrained.  Make no mistake, Rules Lawyers more than likely have as much of a love for the game as you the game master maintain.

In fact, do this as often as possible with the Rules Lawyer.  It makes them have ownership of the game itself, and that same protection and reverence for the rules will soon begin to extend to the story you are telling.  There is no greater feeling of satisfaction than hearing your once opponent turned ally waxing on about the world the new player is about to join.  This my friends, is how you turn a lawyer into a guru.  Make sure to occasionally ask them questions regarding gameplay.  Even if you already know the answer.  Making it apparent to the others at the table that they have more than one resource available can make breaks go more smoothly as they approach your Guru for answers, remove stress from your shoulders as you jot down important plot twists that may have occurred and it provides a sense of purpose for your aspiring guru.  I believe that is known as a win win!

Art by Alanna Bishop © 2017

Art by Alanna Bishop © 2017

Step 3: Get your house rules down!

House Rules are a contentious thing.  I do not believe I have ever run or participated as a player in a single roleplaying game (aside from convention demos by developers) where house rules were not present.  As you game master of the years, you will often accumulate little house rules that you bring with you to almost every game you run.  This can ruffle many a Rules Lawyers feathers but sometimes the damage can be minimized by one simple trick.  Type them up, spell check them, and make copies for everyone at the table.  Having the rules in hard format can alleviate a lot of issues as your resident lawyer has a hard copy to reference for any questions.  Often times it’s merely a matter of comfort. Having the house rules in dead tree format gives a sense of permanency that no amount of vocal expression can accomplish.

If you decide on the fly that something is not working, or keeps consistently being a problem, bring it up to a vote at the table.  I have found most of the time players will vote for whatever keeps the game moving smoothly, and while your lawyer may not be happy with it, if the table majority agrees few will balk at it.  Remember, their chief concern is that everyone is playing by the same laws.  Of course, no solution works 100% of the time, but I think you will find a more democratic approach to the table in terms of rules and rule changes will often alleviate a lot of fights.

Step 4: If all else fails, put the shoe on the other foot

Sometimes, try as you might, you cannot seem to get the Rules Lawyer to relent.  In these cases, I have often resorted to another tactic.  Make them run some one offs.  Putting the Rules Lawyer in the position of Gamemaster can be a risky proposition, but letting them see first hand what your group of gamers expectations are from the GM seat can often time open their eyes to just what you face on a regular basis.  Let me be clear though, the object is not to set them up for failure.  The object is to get them to see why you make some of the choices you make when in the GM seat.    This is not about you assuming their role and being a Rules Lawyer yourself.  That will come off as petty and manipulative and truly sour grapes.

You must maintain a good attitude and play to the best of your ability.  That being said do not be afraid to make choices that will test their boundaries.  I have the rather unintentional ability to magically always seem to choose or steer the party towards something the GM did not prep for.  It is by no means intentional and usually comes from something rather innocuous.  (My son ran Rise of the Runelords and my Dwarven cleric and Dwarven fighter characters decided Sandpoint was a great spot in dire need of a Dwarven tavern serving real ale! Particularly after we put down the Goblin threat.  This sent my poor son scrambling for a bunch of details he could in no way anticipate he would need.)

Ultimately, the goal is, of course, to get the Rules Lawyer to see things from your point of view.  This may or may not work, but if you find yourself unable to approach the table without apprehension regarding your lawyer’s actions this might be the last option left to you.  I have been fortunate in that it has never failed me yet, but there are no guarantees in this thing we call life!  The whole point is fun, and if you find you cannot channel that lawyer into a guru do not sweat it too hard.  Just keep working your game’s story into refinement and hope that the story ends up trumping their desire to quote rules at you.


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